Life on the Mahia peninsula on New Zealand’s North Island used to be quiet: surfing beaches, historical monuments, and good snapper fishing.
Then space came to town.
Four years ago Rocketlab’s Peter Beck was searching for somewhere for his launch pad. He wanted to privatise rocket launches, taking them out of the hands of behemoth governments in Russia, the US and China.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has a similar aim.
Beck scoured the US – and the world – until eventually turning his gaze back home.
Before Rocketlab, New Zealand had no space industry to speak of but a night sky famous for its clarity.
“We’re able to launch at a frequency rate which is unmatched anywhere in the world,” says Beck of his Launch Complex 1 pad where 10 missions have been launched and expansion plans are afoot.
“New Zealand is not a small player in the industry any more – it’s the fourth largest player in the world.”
New Zealand’s remote geographical location gives the country clear skies and seas, low levels of air and shipping traffic, and one of the largest selections of launch angles in the world.
These ideal technical conditions, transparent business environment and a friendly government are creating a buzz in the global space industry.
“Two years ago we had a hard time getting anyone to take us seriously,” says Dr Peter Crabtree, director of New Zealand’s space agency, launched in 2016, and operating on a budget of just NZ$3m a year.
“There was this sense that we weren’t credible.
“Now we’re being asked by other governments: ‘How can New Zealand be involved in trips to the moon and expeditions to Mars?’”
A recent report by Deloitte found the space industry generated $1.75bn for the New Zealand economy in the 2018-19 financial year, and supported 12,000 jobs.
The financial incentive for the industry to thrive is strong as sheep and dairy farming become increasingly unpopular.
“New Zealand is extremely well placed to increase its share in the NZ$647bn global space economy,” the economic minister, Phil Twyford, said recently.
Talks are under way with local universities to recruit and prepare students for local space jobs because the main thing holding the industry back is talent, insiders say.
Last year New Zealand launched the same number of rockets as Japan, India and Europe, making it a major player fast, says Dan Ceperley, founder of the Silicon Valley start-up LeoLabs.
“There’s so much buzz around about New Zealand now – there’s real talk that they could become world leaders,” he says.
His company recently built a radar on a sheep station in the South Island to track space debris.
“The New Zealand space agency have been quite transformative. They are nimble and innovative in their thinking and there is a willingness to discuss new ideas, and that’s not something you get everywhere.”
But there are growing murmurs of disquiet.
Although New Zealand’s space agency has positioned itself as the most “sustainable” and peaceful player in the game, it has also allowed Rocketlab to launch satellites and carry payloads for the US defence department, including its spy agencies.
‘They make us complicit’
This week Rocketlab announced its first launch of 2020 would be for the US national reconnaissance office, which operates the government’s intelligence-gathering satellites.
In a statement the company said the payload of the launch – dubbed Birds of a Feather – was “classified” but “NRO data is used to inform decision-making by national policymakers and military and civil users in the US and in US partner nations, including New Zealand”.
The Green party says it is “concerned” about the launch, especially as tensions with Iran rise, and the director of New Zealand’s centre for peace and conflict studies, Prof Kevin Clements, says he is “alarmed” as New Zealand has no real control over what the US intelligence satellite reconnaissance could be used for.
“While these rocket launches are not delivering weapons into space they are playing an absolutely critical role in enhancing the surveillance and intelligence systems for space-based nuclear warfare,” he says.
“They make us complicit in Donald Trump’s desire for a ‘military space force’. I think they challenge the spirit of our anti-nuclear legislation and tie us ever closer into our alliance with the United States.”
Beck told the Guardian his company was interested in using space as a force for good and “our moral compass in the company is very strong. We … go to space to improve life on Earth.”
But it is not the only Rocketlab project that has prompted a strong public backlash.
In early 2018 the company launched the “humanity star”, variously described as a “giant disco ball”, a “Christmas tree bauble” and “a gesture of hubris”.
Beck said the star would be brightest object in the night sky for nine months until it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, and was designed to be seen around the globe as a “reminder to all on Earth about our fragile place in the universe”.
But the move angered astrophystics: “Wow. Intentionally bright long-term space graffiti. Thanks a lot @RocketLab,” a California Institute of Technology astronomer, Mike Brown, wrote on Twitter.
In New Zealand the humanity star was described by many as “space junk” and a glib use of space and technology.
Crabtree says he found the backlash to the humanity star “instructive” and it demonstrated that New Zealanders would not tolerate what they deemed a “frivolous” use of space.
How well they will tolerate US spy satellites is yet to be seen – the first launch is scheduled for next week.
“I think it revealed New Zealanders have strong environmental values and they’re now playing out in a space context,” he says. “Globally people haven’t thought of space in those terms before.”